With the advent of the internet age it was assumed that we were entering the virtual world. This was the site where ethics, it would seem was going to be irrelevant and obsolete and anarchy would be the norm of behaviour online. Ethical values were presumed by many to be dead in the world where you could be anything (in fact, one can exist on Twitter as a dog or a cat or even a turtle) and anyone (there are numerous instances of ‘God’ existing on the internet, including expressing his concerns about the society through Twitter). So are ethics dead on the internet? Can one take the idea of netiquette as an alternative to social norms in the online world and what are the dangers to such a ‘death’ of ethics? This paper will also talk about the desire of growing out of this ethical self that often becomes the reason why anonymity exists on the internet. This paper will also deal with the most important question that is raised regarding online ethics today: Do ethics exist in the virtual world and is it important to have to have norms and rules online?
Firstly it would be very interesting to understand the whole idea of ethics from an individual’s point of view. Even though the subjectivists believe that ethics and morality as a whole is one of the limiting aspects of existence, the objectivists would believe that the people should have a uniform code of ethical values which would eliminate the idea of disharmony in the society. It becomes very complex for an individual to see the difference between the idea of behaving like his innate self which may, at times, instinctively react against social norms and the idea of behaving as per the norms of the society even as the ideas seem ridiculous to the individual. The individual, in his life, will have to function within the space of the society and hence, he can never exist outside the society as an entity because in that case the entire idea of morality falls. Being born in the society would bring in the aspect of conditioning where the individual will never be able to function without it at all. So where does the idea of the individual ethics and morality exist if it is taken away from the society?
In the internet though, the ambiguity is very interesting in this regard. Even as the internet struggles to contend with the various ideas of human behaviour, there are people online who showcase the very dichotomy that we are discussing in this case. There are people who call themselves the netiquette police (a portmanteau of ‘net’ and ‘etiquette’) and another group of people who are called in derogatory terms as ‘trolls’ (the ‘obnoxious’ nature of their posts often earn them such names). It would be interesting to study why people behave the way they do online. If the netiquette police is accused of being the ones who accuse others to failing to stand up to the standards of a certain online community, the ‘trolls’ are accused to being particularly filled with the idea of being rude and impolite under the guise of certain pseudonyms and fake identities. There is constant struggle within the internet community where the names are often interchanged; that is, a person who is obsessively trying to belittle someone with higher debating terms and language will be labelled a ‘troll’ and a man who is obsessively trying to defeat someone while being very punctilious and sarcastic will certainly be called a ‘troll’ by someone else.
It is perhaps important to remember that the internet being inhabited by a very heterogeneous population of languages and cultures, many times what we can notice is also the clash of different ethical values and beliefs. A person from the Asian context will perhaps defend a certain custom of his online which would be looked down upon by someone from the western world and vice versa. So this is where the objective idea of ethics falls in some cases. Even as one can concede that certain idea are uniformly praised in all cultures as being noble and good, certain contentious issues become the bone of the matter where one can notice a complete example of cultures clashing as ideas. There is of course, no rule hard and fast that most of these exchanges are volatile online, but it had been noticed that in case of sites where people can use pseudonyms, the people often deal with one another differently. Perhaps people who cannot deal with the differences in a globalized world use the internet as a pressure point to let out their frustrations. In that case, should one treat the internet as an alternative space where the usual ideas of ethics and morality don’t apply? Many would disagree because even as there are people who exchange explicit curses there are those who don’t believe in such exchanges and continue to act as they do in real life. What one can suspect, conversely, is that this group of people are so conditioned in the society that they cannot think of disrespecting anyone and treating anyone with disdain. Is that a bad thing? One cannot make value judgements over this issue without looking into the psyche of the people who inhabit these spaces. If psychologically the people are not satisfied with their surroundings then they may try to channel their anger onto the internet. Then the question is: who decides what is the purpose of the internet? Or is the virtual world too transparent for us to judge people?
Perhaps we should look into the idea of anonymity here. If the anonymous individuals are considered as people who letting off their ‘steam’ then the internet becomes a good distraction for them so that they cannot harm anyone in real life. However, with the number of people who have committed suicide over internet threats and taunts is also very telling of the very dehumanizing idea of anonymity. Anyone who is a ‘nobody’ loses his individuality completely through his pseudonym and may sexually harass anyone because then the person no longer feels any pressure of the super-structure of societal morality. In that way, the very trappings of morality in the society may, in the long run of the internet age, turn to dehumanize the people and take them away from ethics. That is the dichotomy of the ethics on the internet which we must try and understand.
Even as there is a freedom for people from different cultures to come together and collaborate giving birth to a more united community, the is a danger that social media and other such sites may desensitize and dehumanize people to an extent that ethics, even as they exist in the world, there will be no use of them because we will start looking at them as being distant from us. The dichotomy of the ethical values or the lack of them on the internet gives us an insight into the minds of the people. It exposes a great danger in which the ethical value systems, in either becoming more rigid or too loose will end up in the collapse of belief systems all over the world. It is, of course, a very postmodern idea of a dystopia but one cannot help thinking of the idea that it is very possible.
(This was a paper that I had written for my Ethics in Public Domain assignment in the IIIrd semester. The image credit goes to this Tumblr site)